Ralph McTell is a well-respected song writer, Streets of London is his most famous song by some margin, although “Clare to Here” which he wrote in 1963, is well known in Ireland. Streets of London is a good example of the 60/70s folk revival, and I am led to believe that it is taught as poetry in some German schools, it is also one of the most covered songs in the world. One of my favorite versions is by Sinead O’Connor, the sweetness of her voice highlights the sadness of the lyrics.
In 2017, it was released as a charity single as a duet with Ralph McTell and Annie Lennox with the proceeds going to Crisis, the homeless charity. The Anti-Nowhere League did a punk version in 1982, it sounds like it should be terrible, but it actually works surprisingly well as an angry punk song, with a “London Bridge is Falling Down” intro.
Written in 1939 and released as part of the London show “New Faces” in 1940. It was first sung by Judy Campbell (the mother of Jane Birkin, famous for singing the very French song “Je t’aime” in the late sixties) in that show. It was immediately popular, and Vera Lynn had recorded before the end of the year. Frank Sinatra’s version is probably the most well-known, reaching No. 2 in the U.S. charts.
It has been covered by so many artists that it is hard to pick favourites, Glenn Miller, Nat King Cole, Michael Bublé, and Rod Stewart to name just a few. The Stéphane Grapelli and Yehudi Menuhin version is really good. Manhattan Transfer’s cover won a Grammy. The New Vaudeville Band did a distinctive version in the mid ’60s, and Ian Hunter (remember him from Mott The Hoople and Ziggy Stardust?), includes a version on his live sets.
It also features in many films and TV shows. Robert Lindsay sings it as the theme tune to the series “Nightingales”. Tori Amos sings it in the credits of Terry Patchett’s “Good Omens”. David Mitchell even sings it to Olivia Coleman in “Peep Show” Berkeley Square is a square in Mayfair, surrounded by smart terraced houses. Many of the earliest British Prime Ministers had their private residences there. It is a grassed square containing 18th Century Plane trees and there was a “coming out ball” (for debs, not as we know the term now!) held here, under a marquee, every year.
Baker Street is really a song about wishing to get out of London, but it still evokes the feel of the city in the late 1970’s. The sax break gives the intro a lonely, big city vibe and then the lyrics are a longing to escape to a nostalgic countryside that only exists in songs or people’s dreams. It was apparently written when he had already moved out of London and only visited to see lawyers, while he was negotiating his way out of Stealers Wheel contract, so you can understand why he didn’t see London is the happiest of lights. However, despite this, the final verse is positive “The sun is shining, it’s a new morning” and it sounds like he makes it out.
Released in 1978, it was a huge hit around the world. No. 1 in Australia, Canada, South Africa. No. 2 for 6 weeks in the US and No. 3 here in the UK. There have been many cover versions – in fact Undercover in arguably had a bigger hit in the UK with the song, reaching No. 2 in 1992, although to be fair it not a version that you hear often now, unlike the original.
Gerry Rafferty had hits in Stealers Wheel – “Stuck in the middle with you” is a great ’70s song. He was also in a duo with Billy Connolly called The Humblebums, very folky. The Foo Fighters used to do a cover of Baker Street at their live gigs and, of course, it is the song Lisa from The Simpsons used to learn the saxophone
It is remarkable how similar the sax solo sounds on this 1968 song by Steve Marcus, I suspect it would have ended in a courtroom had we been in these more litigious days. For all that, Half a Heart is a good song in its own right, very different in tone and I would probably never have heard it, if not for Baker Street.
All in all, a worthy addition to The London Playlist, if you have any suggestions for songs that you believe should be added please let me know in the comments.